Film Reviews:

Alien Nation

(Graham Baker, US, 1988)

The buddy-buddy cop thriller is a thriving sub-genre, the success of Lethal Weapon proves that but it's interesting to see this sometimes tired genre given a new and interesting twist, with the introduction of an alien into the usual partnership.

[Alien Nation]Alien Nation's story is set in 1994, three years after millions of aliens come to Earth in desperation, from their dying planet. After a period of quarantine, the 'Newcomers' are accepted by the United States, given equal opportunities and are treated as humans. James Caan stars as Sykes, a cop whose partner is killed by a 'Slag' as the aliens are labelled. To try and come to terms with this, Sykes joins up with a Newcomer called Samuel Francisco. Together, they soon discover that Sykes' partner's death is connected with another case, which soon leads them to Harcourt (Terence Stamp) a highly successful business Newcomer. What they discover could upset the safe balance of the aliens' integration and threaten the world.

When it was released, television commercials and advertising promoted the film as some form of alien-on-the-loose movie. Indeed, with the words 'From the producer of Aliens' being used everywhere it's possible that some may have been duped into believing that Alien Nation is a follow-up to that film. It's nothing of the sort. Director Graham Baker keeps the film just this side of the fantastic. He hasn't let the material run away from the American social satire it is clearly built around. Although it is still a gun-toting, car-chasing, action-packed buddy buddy movie, Alien Nation manages to be more and is a welcome addition to the genre as a result.

James Caan is just right as a cop with a broken marriage, struggling to give his best to his job. Mandy Patinkin as his partner Francisco manages to convey all looks through layers of alien lake-up and in this sense, the film comes across as Enemy Mine on Earth. The two have that essential chemistry, needed for this type of fill to work and, it's on their shoulders that the quiet scenes rest and work. Terence Stamp is his usual excellent self, oozing with evil and menace and instantly recognizable despite Stan Winston's reptile head prosthetics, It was crucial that Winston's make-up be convincing as Newcomers are on the screen for the entire film. The effect produced is quite good and the natural variation from alien to alien clever, but in some scenes, Baker could have been a little more conservative with his lighting.

The only real compliant that can be made about Alien Nation is the rather abrupt and poorly edited (and dubbed) ending. Apparently, a four-minute murder scene has been completely cut. 20th Century Fox say the British censors okayed the full print but when received from the States, all prints were mysteriously edited. It's a shame but still, Alien Nation works in all the areas it intended to, and it isn't often a fantasy film doesn't misfire on one level or another. The attention to detail creates a realistic and believable setting. Francisco's family life is seen lore than Sykes', the Newcomers get drunk on sour milk, alien graffiti covers the walls in the 'Slag' quarter and Newcomer prostitutes stand on street corners offering a different kind of service. The thinly disguised social commentary on minorities isn't made tiresome by overemphasis but remains throughout, often as amusing satire. If Baker can take a weighty subject like racial disputes entertaining, yet still retain a serious perspective, he gets my vote. Alien Nation is by no means perfect but as a new perspective on an established and entertaining genre, it hits the spot. 7/10

Alan Strode (July 1989)

See also:

Alien Nation (TV series)
Followed by several TV movies:

Alien Nation: Dark Horizon (1994)
Alien Nation: Body and Soul
Alien Nation: Millennium
Alien Nation: The Enemy Within
Alien Nation: The Udara Legacy

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